Rabbinic counter-identity and the changes of the 'digital halakhah'

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


Even though the Mishnah-Tosefta and the halakhic midrashim do not say who and what the rabbis are, they indirectly do say who and what they are not. Following a set of passages on the borders of the Mishnah, i.e. the concluding passages of tractates and especially the ending of tractate Oholoth, this paper investigates how the borders of Israel, both those of the Land and those of the People, are constructed by the Tannaim. This literary border patrol will shed light on a difference between rabbinic counter-identity as it is expressed in the body of Mishnah tractates on the one hand, and in their endings on the other. Whereas the body takes account of the ‘different other’ in theoretical terms irrespective of his historical existence, tractate endings unveil the ‘different other’ with whom the rabbis were in daily contact. My claim is that a sharp, ‘digital’ distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is possible only on the theoretical level which disregard the median cases. It seems to me that the Mishnah has been edited unevenly and according to two opposing aims: it endeavours to create a ‘digital halakha’ which is now represented by the strict, systematic, formulaic and therefore more solid Mishnah in the body, but in parts it also attempts to cover the median cases generated by the social reality which is now mostly represented by the endings. As this paper argues, these two opposing aims can be linked to two historic stages of the development of Tannaitic halakhah. The well-woven web of the halakhic system comes undone and discloses the anomalies which the editorial process chose not to dissolve in the ‘digital halakhah’. Whereas the ‘different other’ of the body is basically a theoretical concept designed to fit into the halakhic system, the ‘different other’ of the endings is the neighbour flesh and blood with questionable halakhic status whose existence caused a real headache to the rabbis.
Period26 Nov 2013
Event titleSeminar on Jewish History and Literature in the Graeco-Roman Period: Michaelmas 2013
Event typeSeminar
LocationOxford, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionRegional


  • Rabbinic law
  • Identity